“We realize that we must work while it’s day because the night is coming when no one can work (John 9:4).”
Ilya was born and raised in the underground Pentecostal church in the former Soviet Union until his family immigrated to Canada in 1988. On the way to Canada, we met in Vienna, Austria, where I was serving as a missionary in a refugee camp. We were married in 1991. In 1993, we felt God calling us to return to Novokuznetsk, Ilya’s home city in southern Siberia, Russia, to plant a church. At that time there were only four evangelical churches in the city of 600,000 people.
We started the church by going outside on the streets with a guitar, passing out tracts and inviting people to a local movie theatre for a service. Slowly, people started coming to hear the message. After four months a small congregation was formed, and 12 new believers were baptized. Within the first two months of arriving in Russia, four extreme trials occurred. Our first-born son, Joshua, who was one year old at the time, almost died from encephalitis after drinking contaminated water from a well. After two weeks of sustaining a temperature of 104°F and taking strong antibiotics, he miraculously recovered. Secondly, we had all our belongings stolen except for our guitar and a small umbrella stroller. This was a great loss as there was literally nothing to buy in the stores of post-communist Russia. Thirdly, one day as we were walking outside pushing little Joshua in his umbrella stroller, a car unexpectedly came from behind, hitting the stroller and knocking Ilya down. Joshua was thrown into the bushes. Ilya lay on the street in pain, his leg hit from the side; however, not a bone was broken, and Joshua was safely lying in the bushes without a single bruise! At that moment Ilya reached into his pocket for a tract and invited the driver to church. The fourth incident in this six-week period was that I contracted pneumonia in both lungs but thought it was only the flu. After taking Advil for two weeks and still running a fever of 104, I went for blood work and X-rays. Doctors discovered that both lungs were already filling up with fluid, which would have been deadly if it had gone undetected. For the next 10days, I received 40 injections of antibiotics. After recovering, I discovered that I was pregnant with our second child the entire time. Russian doctors instilled fear that the child would be born deformed because of all the strong medicine. However, by God’s grace, Jessica was born without any defects.
For the next six years, the church had to move 11 times to different locations—but never by choice. Every time it was without notice, caused by threats from government officials. Not once were any services cancelled. The congregation met outside in the rain and snow for months at a time, and on other occasions, in the most horrendous places. For two years they held services twice a week in a burnt shoe factory building that had no running water or heat. In the winter it plummeted to -40°C with no wind chill factor, and inside the concrete building it felt colder than outside. No one ever complained. Believers gathered at the services and never took off their coats, hats and gloves. They said they could see their breath as they lifted their hands in worship. People brought their unsaved friends and family, and many accepted the Lord as their Saviour! Church growth didn’t depend on the building, the furniture or the equipment. When God’s presence is in a place and people’s hearts are open to the Lord, He draws them to Himself. Despite intense opposition to stop the church, it kept on growing by God’s grace.
After two years in the shoe factory, the Lord miraculously provided a building in the centre of the city that we could purchase. Unexpectedly, we spent the next six years battling in dozens of court hearings to save the building from corrupt politicians and the Russian mafia. Because the judges were bribed, we finally lost all our appeals and our ownership papers were cancelled. As we made the last appeal to the Supreme Court in Moscow, the Lord gave us a promise that He would give us the victory, but we needed to stop fasting and praying for the building and instead pray and fast for the salvationof souls and people in the city. To the surprise of everyone in our city, the church won the Supreme Court case in Moscow! Jesus said, “… I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, KJV).
In August 2018, we celebrated the 25-year anniversary of the church. The fruit from that little church plant is nothing short of an amazing story of what God has done:
- The church has grown to over 1,000 members, with four services on the weekend.
- It has planted 21 other churches throughout Russia.
- It started the first official Teen Challenge (TC) Centre in Russia and has now planted 15 TC Centres throughout Siberia. Ilya currently oversees seven centres in Novokuznetsk directly.
- In 2010, Ilya was chosen to be the director of Teen Challenge Russia to oversee more than 300 TC centres throughout the country.
- In 2012, Ilya was chosen to be the Eurasia director for Teen Challenge.
- Ilya and I have also started an annual Missionary Training School and a four-year Theological Extension Program for pastors in Novokuznetsk.
- The focus is now on leadership development and the mentoring of future pastors to provide a strong foundation for new churches and satellite campuses.
Our prayer and dream is to plant five satellite churches in each section of our city in the next five years, and to plant 200 churches throughout Siberia by 2030. We realize we must work while it’s day because the night is coming when no one can work (John 9:4).
We sincerely ask for your prayers, that God will give us wisdom and leading in all of our decisions, and that He will pour out His Spirit on the amazing country of Russia so that a multitude of souls would be saved in these last days.
Read more about PAOC global workers Ilya and Janet here: https://paoc.org/donate/ilyabantseev.
Images courtesy of Janet Bantseev. Used with permission. This article appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.